SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea should follow in the footsteps of Russia and China and open up its economic and political systems to improve conditions for its people, President Barack Obama’s point man for human rights in the country said Thursday.
Robert King, in a live conversation with South Korean Internet users held on a U.S. Embassy-run Web site, said he wants North Korea to achieve significant political and economic changes like Russia and China have gone through over the past 20 years.
Pyongyang has long been regarded as having one of the world’s worst human rights records, with more than 150,000 political prisoner believed detained in large prison camps. The North has bristled at outside criticism of its rights situation, calling it part of a U.S.-led plot to topple its regime.
South Koreans submitted questions to King in Korean and his answers were translated back into that language. The embassy did not immediately release a transcript of his original English-language comments.
King reiterated his view that the North should improve human rights conditions if it wants to forge normalized, productive ties with the United States.
He said respect for human rights must be part of relations among countries, arguing the U.S. is not using the issue as a “stick” — the only English word released — to criticize the country.
North Korea and the U.S. have never had diplomatic relations. The North was founded in 1948 three years after the end of World War II, and the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. Earlier this week, the North proposed peace talks to formally end the war, but the U.S. brushed aside the offer, saying Pyongyang should first return to six-nation talks on its nuclear weapons program.
King, a former staff director on the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee, was on his first visit overseas as special envoy for North Korean human rights, only weeks after assuming the position. He will travel on to Japan later Thursday.
He also said the U.S. has urged North Korea to release an American citizen it has detained since late last month for entering the country illegally.
Activists say the detainee is a 28-year-old Korean-American missionary named Robert Park who slipped into the country on Christmas Day to raise international awareness of the North’s dire human rights situation. The North hasn’t identified by name who it is holding.
King said he knows the North’s human rights situation would not improve quickly but stressed the need to continue to apply pressure on the country. On Monday, he called the human rights situation there appalling.
Separately, King met Thursday with Vitit Muntarbhorn, the United Nations’ special investigator on human rights in North Korea, who is also visiting South Korea to meet government officials, civic activists and North Korean defectors. The U.S. Embassy in Seoul declined to disclose the contents of the meeting.
Associated Press Writer Kelly Olsen contributed to this report.